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  • The Vail Project

A Different Time

Every day is a struggle. The loss of our child is a weight that is unbearable. Most days, Steve and I accomplish our must do list, focus on the new business and take care of Aspen. That takes all the energy we have. We have met some other SUDC parents, and being able to speak, text, and message with them is helpful. In the way it can be. It helps us to feel like we aren't the only ones in the world suffering this loss. Having so few people that relate to our loss got Steve thinking. He started to ask the question why. Why don't people understand loss? The pain, the isolation, the fear, and the madness that comes with it? Here is what he came up with.

Our generation has never truly experienced loss. And those behind us haven't either. Sure, we live in a world with school shootings, tsunamis, genocide, and many other ugly things. Those losses only touch a very small percentage of people. Despite the fact that we see death and destruction on tv every single day, we just cannot relate because it isn't personal. It isn't on our doorstep. As individuals, we all haven't lost. Death hasn't touched every American life. Not like it did during World War II. That generation understood loss. That generation understood pain. That generation understood the true meaning of community and the value of supporting those around you. They didn't have any other option.

Our largest collective loss in my lifetime was the attacks of 9-11 and the conflicts that have followed. The American soil losses of the 9-11 attack totaled 2,977. Plus 19 hijackers. There have been 2,372 military deaths in the wars since 9-11, plus an additional 1,720 contractor deaths equaling 4,092 in total. It is estimated that 268,000 - 295,000 people were killed in violence in the Iraq war from March 2003 - Oct. 2018, including 182,272 - 204,575 civilians. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy. I am by no means minimizing the losses of those lives nor the devastating affects that attack has had on our country. One was too many. However, when you consider the statistics from WW2, the post 9-11 losses are just a blip in our history. In WW2, an estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population. Over 6 million of those were Jews.

I'm not trying to be morbid by rattling off these numbers. Just real. Our generation knows nothing of loss, not in comparison. Steve has taken to watching World War II movies, as a form of therapy. It started with HBO's Band of Brothers and now includes the likes of Pearl Harbor, Midway, Saving Private Ryan, and Hacksaw Ridge. Initially, I thought it was depressing, all that death and destruction. But after watching a few of these with him, I am beginning to understand why it helps him. Those people understand loss. And they would have understood our pain. The men who served, their families, and all the Americans and Allied countries. Every person alive then was affected. In every country. That war really touched everyone. Obviously I wasn't alive back then, but with those kinds of losses, I bet you were hard-pressed to find a person who wasn't personally affected. Everyone was suffering the way we are suffering right now. Everyone understood the pain of loss, the unbearable sadness, the grief fatigue, the way it all changes you on a fundamental level. It has been 75 years since the end of WW2. Most of the people who fought in that war and survived are gone now. Most of the people who lost someone in that war are gone now too. With everything that has happened globally since, it is a forgotten part of our day to day American life. So much so, that there aren't many people alive who even remember living through it. We are so separated from such a massive loss that it doesn't even seem real or fathomable. Those loss numbers are so huge that I can't really understand them. Can you?

What I do understand is the that loss of my child is the most devastating thing I will ever have to endure. It is the most devastating thing that anyone could have to endure. Whether that loss comes with an undetermined coroners report or a silver star and flagged covered coffin. No one should have to bury their child.

What I recognize is that we are so far removed from an understanding of loss that we cannot support each other in our grief. And I don't just mean others supporting us. I mean I don't have any idea how to support someone else through this either!!! I don't know what to say or how to comfort the other SUDC families. We basically all just talk about how badly it sucks, how much we hurt, and how we cannot understand how this happened. The grieving don't know any more about grief and how to manage it than those who are supporting us. As a culture, a society, a people....we don't understand it anymore. Loss doesn't touch us enough,(which is a blessing). That's why our society is so stricken by the loss of someone famous. Somehow that is personal, despite being the least personal kind of loss we could experience. Because that is their only experience with loss. The vast majority of people our age (late 30's to mid 40's) haven't even lost one of their parents. Let alone a spouse or a child.

I know that I am generalizing here. There are plenty of people who know true loss and I am not trying marginalize that at all. I'm just trying to wrap my head around how we all became so bad at understanding death and grief. Both of which are a part of life for all of us. We are so bad at it that most people cannot even bring themselves to talk about it, let alone provide support or comfort. We are so bad at it that hundreds of people in our support group can relate to feeling alone, unsupported by loved ones, and misunderstood. Steve and I are now trying to accept that our circle has gotten smaller, and not just by one beautiful, goofy brown-eyed toddler.

I am starting to learn that this lack of understanding doesn't equal a lack of caring or empathy. Most people care about us and our loss. Most people feel something. Empathy, sympathy, sadness, pain, frustration, or even apathy. Everyone thinks about us and knows what we are going through is horrible. They just don't know what to do with it beyond that. And that brings this whole thing full circle...they don't know because they can't relate. And they can't relate because they haven't personally experienced great loss. I wouldn't wish this kind of 'understanding' on anyone. Ever.

So, maybe you can fathom how we might feel like we are living in world in which we no longer belong. How, if we were living in the 40's and 50's, there would be plenty of people going through the same thing. Now, I certainly don't wish I was living back then. But I do understand why Steve likes to watch those movies. It's a reminder of a different time. When people were different. When his pain would be recognized frequently.

What I am finding in my attempt to manage my grief is that there are some decent resources for grief support. There are people, all of whom have experienced some sort of life-changing loss, who are trying to educate others. These bloggers, writers, and lecturers are working to educate the rest of us on what it feels like to lose on the greatest level, how to survive it, and how to help others through it. I won't claim to know anything about the latter two, but I do know what the soul-crushing pain is like. That is why I write about it. Putting my thoughts and feelings down in this blog, help me to, at the very least, express myself. Maybe not very eloquently and often with an abrasive tone, I admit. But it is still my personal expression of loss. I write the blog, instead of just a journal, in hopes that the few of you who read this, will get something out of it. If we don't talk about it, the loss and grief become a mystery to those lucky enough to avoid it. Eventually though, we will all be members of this community. The community of loss. No one escapes life without losing someone, at some point or another. How we navigate those losses, how we support others through them, is a true testament to our grace and intelligence. So, if we don't talk about it, write about, blog about it and then read about it, how are we supposed to learn? I can tell you that learning on the fly, in the face of the great loss of baby Vail, has not been easy. Not that I think anything could have really prepared us for this. However, I do think that if I had learned from past losses, learned how to grieve that is, that I would at least have had a rudimentary understanding of what this might be like. But I didn't. Learn from past losses that is. I lost my grandmother and my good friend from high school in the same year. How did I cope? I moved across the county, got a risky job, and drank a lot. I have know the loss of friends in my Ocean Rescue family. How did we all cope with those? Surf-board vigils, lots of booze, and moving on to the next thing as fast as possible. My sister lost her husband very young. I wasn't any help to her. I couldn't sit with her in her pain. I couldn't understand it at all. Now I know that no one in her peer group did, or could have.

How do we change this culture of grief isolation? Well, it requires us all to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to talk about painful things, about the true feelings that come with the pain. We have to share our pain, no matter how hard it is, with those around us. Even if we don't want to. I certainly don't. And then we need to listen. I mean truly hear, with an open mind and full heart to what the grieving have to say. No matter how much opening our hearts to their pain fills us with dread or anxiety. We have to sit with it. Get familiar with it. Spend enough time there, in that sad, lonely, angry, empty place with those who have lost that we can see it for what it is. Then, once we have done that, we have to change. We have to stay present. Truly present, throughout their grief. We have to know in our hearts that it isn't enough to think about someone who is grieving every day. That it isn't enough to be sad for them. That it isn't enough attend a service and bring some flowers. All of those things are important, but not enough. We won't understand that they aren't enough until we learn. And we won't truly learn until we experience our own losses. Even then, there will be more growth to do. So you maybe asking yourself, why would I bother trying to learn from others pain, when it won't fully prepare me for my own? With that, I will leave you with this: If you don't learn something, even just a little tiny sliver, from those experiencing grief around you, expect to be blindsided by your own loss. It will happen. You will lose someone, someday. And when you do, your lack of even the most basic knowledge of that kind of awesome, intense, heartbreaking pain, may render you powerless. Powerless to get out of bed every day and take care of your surviving children (like we have had to do). Powerless to maintain your marriage. Powerless to maintain a grasp on your sanity. Powerless to continue to draw your own breath. This isn't fear mongering. It is just real life. None of us survive loss. We are all forever changed. My body is the same body that has carried me through this life, all the days before we lost Vail and all the days since. But the soul, the spirit for which that body is a vessel is gone. Burnt to ashes. Now, like a phoenix, we must rise from those ashes and start a new. I can't tell you how, any better than the next person. Yet we must.

Learn from our loss. Read my blog or read a book. Take a class. Talk to someone who has loved greatly and lost even more so. Educate yourself. Prepare for that day. Do what I never did. Carry as much of that knowledge into your future as you can. So when that day comes, no matter how blindsided you may be, your soul will have some preparation for the new life it will need to build from the ashes.

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